Guide to the trouser role
‘The trouser role’ or ‘Breeches role’ is a role in which an actress appears in male clothing (breeches being tight-fitting knee-length pants, the standard male garment in the classical era when breeches roles were introduced). In opera it can also refer to any male character that is sung and acted by a female singer. Most often the character is an adolescent or a very young man, sung by a mezzo sopranoor contralto, or, occasionally, a male countertenor.
The operatic concept of the breeches role assumes that the character is male, and the audience accepts him as such, even knowing that the actor is not. Cross-dressing female characters (e.g. Leonore in Fidelio or Gilda in Act III of Rigoletto) — are not considered breeches roles. The most often-performed breeches roles are Cherubino (The Marriage of Figaro), Octavian (Der Rosenkavalier), and Orpheus (Orpheus and Euridice).
Because non-musical stage plays generally have no requirements for vocal range, they do not usually contain breeches roles in the same sense as opera. Some plays do have male roles that were written for adult female actors, and (for other practical reasons) are usually played by women (e.g., Peter Pan); these could be considered modern-era breeches roles. However, in most cases, the choice of a female actor to play a male character is made at the production level; Hamlet is not a breeches role, but Sarah Bernhardt once played Hamlet as a breeches role. When a play is spoken of as "containing" a breeches role, this does mean a role where a female character pretends to be a man and uses male clothing as a disguise, the reverse of its usage in opera.
History of the trouser role
When the London theatres re-opened in 1660, the first professional actresses appeared on the public stage, replacing the Shakespeare era's boys in dresses. To see real women speak the risqué dialogue of Restoration comedy and show off their bodies on stage was a great novelty, and soon the even greater sensation was introduced of women wearing male clothes on stage. Out of some 375 plays produced on the London stage between 1660 and 1700, it has been calculated that 89, nearly a quarter, contained one or more roles for actresses in male clothes. Practically every Restoration actress appeared in trousers at some time, and breeches roles would even be inserted gratuitously in revivals of older plays.
Some critics, for example Jacqueline Pearson, have argued that these cross-dressing roles subvert conventional gender roles by allowing women to imitate the roistering and sexually aggressive behaviour of male Restoration rakes, but Elizabeth Howe has objected in a detailed study that the male disguise was "little more than yet another means of displaying the actress as a sexual object".
Breeches roles remained an attraction on the British stage for centuries, but their fascination gradually declined as the difference in real-life male and female clothing became less extreme. They played a part in burlesque, and are traditional for the principal boy in pantomime.
Historically, the list of roles that are considered to be breeches roles is constantly changing, depending on the tastes of the opera-going public and the choices of the opera director. In early Italian opera, many leading operatic roles were assigned to a castrato, a male castrated before puberty with a very strong and high voice. These roles were to be played by men. As the practice of castrating boy singers faded, the roles drifted into the trouser mezzo-soprano arena, for only women were trained to sing that high.